Jack Meggitt-Phillips is presenter and co-producer of The History of Advertising Podcast, the Apple Podcasts show which looks back at the stories behind some of the nation’s favourite ads.
Desert Island Ads
Politics has been described as showbusiness for ugly people. Whilst politicians have been likened to diapers, because they both need to be changed often, and often for the same reason.
Recently, I have been sticking my nose into the seedy, hairy underbelly of political advertising, all in the name of research for the History of Advertising Podcast. The thing which has struck me most is how the best political campaigns are those which rely on a few key ingredients: slander, misdirection and eye-wincingly earnest campaign films.
Below are my top picks of UK political ads, ones which would be an absolute joy to revisit on the sun-drenched beaches of a desert island. Apologies in advance, nothing from The Monster Raving Looney Party quite made the list.
Conservatives – ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ 1978
Oh Maggie, you minx.
This poster campaign, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, helped change the course of politics and ushered in the Thatcher era. It was a poster campaign run by the Conservatives in 1978, in expectation that the then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, would call a general election.
It drew attention to the levels of rising unemployment at the time, with an image of a long, winding dole que. Even though it courted a fair splash of controversy (the people in the queue were not actually unemployed, but in fact Conservative party members), it can’t be denied that the image is a powerful, enduring one which does a jolly good job of trashing the opposition.
Labour – ‘Kinnock: The Movie’ 1987
‘Kinnock: The Movie’ may sound like a low-budget horror film, or something from the ideas’ drawer of David Brent, but this campaign film does a masterful job in humanising a leader who was seen as a somewhat unlikeable figure by many voters.
Directed by Chariots of Fire’s Hugh Hudson, the film led to an immediate rise of 19 points in Kinnock’s personal poll ratings. More impressively, when Peter Mandelson first saw it, he was apparently moved to tears.
Conservatives – ‘John Major: The Movie’ 1992
Any ad which succeeds in animating the infamously cardboard-like John Major deserves to be on this list. The Conservatives were very much the underdogs going into the 1992 election, with the recession and the introduction of the much-protested poll tax doing little to help the party’s standing with the public. The campaign film was in many ways a last throw of the dice – a desperate, yet ultimately successful, attempt to breathe life into the stumbling corpse of John Major.
In the film, Major revisited his humble beginnings in Brixton. He recalled his experience of being unemployed, and discussed his personal experience of how the NHS had been there when his parents were aged and infirm. It shows him as a modest, if somewhat uncomfortable man of the people, and it’s a masterpiece in political profiling.
Labour – ‘Do It’ 1997
It may seem terribly dated now, but Labour’s ‘Do it’ campaign video, ahead of Blair’s overwhelming victory in 1997 deserves to be on this list, because it is so fist-pumpingly smug and positive. Nothing else in recent memory has done such a good job of romanticising the (in my experience somewhat tedious) visit to the poll station.
Compared to the Conservatives’ ‘evil-eyed’ Blair ad, which was banned by the ASA, this is a campaign film which catered for voters who were ready for change.
Labour – Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. 2001
Just look at the picture. Bloody hilarious, and makes a serious point at the same time. Forget Trump’s toupee, a bald man in a wig has never been so political.